Friday, January 15, 2016
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Writers: Kazuo Hirotsu, Kogo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu
Photography: Yuharu Atsuta
Music: Senji Ito
Editor: Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Cast: Chishu Ryu, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, Yumeji Tsukioka, Jun Usami, Masao Mishima
Late Spring seems like a typical movie for director and cowriter Yasujiro Ozu, but perhaps that's because it's the first of the last long phase of his moviemaking career, when he addressed the rich themes of postwar middle-class Japanese family life that he would work for nearly the next 15 years. It's not that it's such a great departure from what he had done before, but the war was obviously a huge disruption in all Japanese life, not just Ozu's. This movie heralds a modified new direction in many ways, even down to the title conceit of a particular time of year.
Some of those others, which include Early Summer (1951), Early Spring (1956), and Late Autumn (1960), may actually be closer to the conceits of English-speaking marketers, as the original Japanese titles in some cases have little or nothing to do with seasons. But Banshun, the Japanese title for this tender story of the transitional relationship between a father and his daughter of marrying age, translates specifically to "late spring," which would make it, metaphorically speaking, approximately the marrying month of June. Indeed, marriage is all that anyone around Professor Somiya (Chishu Ryu) and his daughter Noriko (Setsuko Hara) seems to have on their mind, until finally, even inevitably, it infects them too.
For that reason, in many ways the narrative plays a lot like a Jane Austen novel. There is an eminently eligible woman of marrying age, with a fine character, and a lot of adults who think "it's time" for her to marry. There is even a candidate or two lurking at the edges, but that is one place among many where it goes off the rails of the Austen track. The key here is that the candidates are lurking at the edges, rather than front and center—in fact, we never even see the man she ultimately marries. The story is about the father and the daughter, and enlarging from there, it's about postwar Japan and Japanese society in flux. The classic "novel of manners" approach only works because it suits those purposes so well.
Indeed, in many ways the picture is kind of Rorschach test of the relationship between society and individuals. A compelling case can be been made that it's a movie about societal values imposing themselves on and ultimately destroying a wonderful and comfortable but unconventional relationship. Sex is not part of this story, so neither is incest—at all. The war is still a factor even though it's over. Professor Somiya and Noriko are the only family each other has. There are no brothers, if there ever were, and likewise the mother is out of the picture, her absence evidently a long-accepted fact. We learn that Noriko suffered in the war, was ill-treated, became sick, and needed care. Now, at the age of 27, her recovery is finally just complete.
Perhaps because I am more conventional than I like to think, I tend to take a variation of the other view on this picture, which is that it's a movie about people in inevitable transition. In many ways Noriko is still a child, and Professor Somiya is still raising her. She becomes petulant and irrational when she is confronted with things she doesn't like. She stalks out of rooms and runs away from people in the street. She's incapable of hiding her displeasure when it comes to the subject of mating. She thinks it's abominable, for example, for anyone to remarry. She reacts badly or unresponsively to most talk of marriage, especially her own or her father's.
Professor Somiya, at 56, knows he has a good deal with such an extraordinarily devoted and companionable daughter. At home they are like a comfortable husband and wife—make that highly traditional wife. He knows he has a good deal but he can also do the math—he understands what taking advantage of her that way would mean for her life, abandoned by him to death in her own middle age. He listens to the people around him counseling her to marry, and he makes the case to her in the kindest possible ways. He is arguing against his own best interests in many ways, which is where much of the poignancy in this picture is derived, certainly its powerful last image.
Getting Noriko from Point A to Point B is the whole thrust of this picture: from her starting commitment against marrying to her own wedding and thoughts of her life and future is the basic arc. But it's done in such deliberate, circumspect, and effective ways that it is always compelling—if you go for small human dramas of insignificant people, that is, which I admit a large weakness for.
Near the middle of the picture, for example, an extended scene at a Noh play occurs. Noriko's abhorrence of remarriage has already been established. Shortly before this scene she has realized that her father may be considering it, and she knows the woman he is thinking of. That woman also happens to be at the Noh play that Noriko and her father attend. Even as the alien caterwauling from the play rages on (well, alien to these Western ears), an intricate dance of recognition and reaction happens between Noriko and the woman, all of it accomplished by subtle facial gestures and head movements.
Ozu is really in command of this material, but much credit also goes to Chishu Ryu and especially Setsuko Hara. She bears the face of postwar modernity, smart and classy and fashionable, yet she uses it to express subtly powerful emotions. In a scene that occurs late, on a final pleasure trip she takes with her father to Kyoto before her wedding, they are speaking from their separate beds before falling asleep. Noriko starts to tell him that she has reconsidered the idea of remarriage, she sees now how it makes others happy and shouldn't be judged. But before she can finish she realizes he has fallen asleep. The reactions that pass across her face are muted but evocative, flashing through impatience, sadness, good humor, resignation, and more, reflecting the depths of their relationship.
As that trip, and soon after this movie, comes to an end, Noriko again has second thoughts, declaring how happy she has been with their life, and that it is enough for her. "Marriage won't make me happier," she says. Professor Somiya makes her a fine speech then, with good advice, about how happiness is forged within a marriage. Noriko is sad he can't hear what she's saying, that her happiness is with him. But he feels he must reject that, in an act of parenting, and perhaps he's right. However you interpret it, it's only one of many very extraordinary scenes in this classic picture.